Professor Duy Uyen is dead, her life’s work – to grow food in space and bring food safety to the Dai Viet Empire – unfinished. Aliette de Bodard’s Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight explores the impact of the Professor’s death on the three people closest to her, a melancholy exploration of mourning, reflection and acceptance.
I enjoyed Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight but didn’t think I’d have anything to say about it (beyond perhaps a quick thumbs-up on Twitter) until I got to the end and it clenched its cradling hands to break my heart. If you’ve visited x+1 before, you probably know this is a near-certain way to win my approval.
Quang Tu is bound with bitterness, having borne the burden of caring for his mother in her final illness, but denied the comfort of her mem implants to accompany him through the rest of his days.
Tuyet Hoa was Duy Uyen’s student, unexpected and not entirely willing recipient of the men implants, who will now have her teacher’s demanding voice in her head for the rest of her days. The Empire needs the Professor’s work completed, needs food safety. This overrides personal concerns or comforts.
The Tiger in the Banyan is a mind ship, a distant daughter unbound by entirely human considerations but still capable of emotion. She always knew she would outlive her human family by centuries. But will she outlive her mother’s work?
The story is split between inward contemplation and difficult conversations between siblings as they push one another. The Tiger in the Banyan pushes Quang Tu to move on, to swallow his pride and accept the second loss of his mother; but she too struggles to accept her passing and hoards her grief. When an older mindship, The Dream of Millet, takes her to task, The Tiger in the Banyan lies just as her brother does.
There are themes here of compassion, and how it intertwines with the heartless wisdom of elders or the kindness of strangers. There’s a repeated refrain of a lullaby that haunts the siblings. A suggestion that perhaps peace can be found under starlight, as fragile and full of hope as a carefully-designed strain of rice. And – as ever with de Bodard – there’s fabulous, economic world-building, just enough sketched in to lend a sense of weight and inevitability to a world we never quite see.
I found it compelling in its grasp of the human heart and the ravages of sorrow, and I could empathise with each character; if I identified best with the least human, well that’s what I seek when I read SF.
Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight can be read online at Clarkesworld. It recently won the BSFA Best Short Story, and has been nominated for a Locus Award.
It is set in the future of Aliette de Bodard’s sprawling alt historical Xuya universe (follow the link for background, and a chronological list of related stories – they’re well worth a look).
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